Anne Arundel County is looking to fill empty jail space with federal immigration detainees. The county is negotiating a possible deal with the federal government. (Baltimore Sun video)
Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh sees using his county's jails to hold undocumented immigrants for the federal government as a win for everyone.
Every jurisdiction in the United States should be helping to defend the nation's borders, the Republican says. And the money that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would pay Arundel to fill its unused jail cells with short-term detainees could provide steady revenue for the county.
"We have a large number of unoccupied beds; entire wings of our jails are available for use by others, such as the federal government," Schuh said. "We believe that there may be an opportunity for Anne Arundel County to more than cover its costs."
Advocates for immigrants, meanwhile, are urging the county not to involve itself in the divisive national debate over immigration. Once local governments get involved with ICE, they warn, undocumented immigrants become suspicious that local police are enforcing federal immigration law — and grow wary of calling officers when they need help.
"Local government needs to take care of local needs, and federal immigration enforcement is a federal issue," said Elizabeth Alex, the Baltimore regional director of the advocacy group CASA. "We really want folks to call the police and trust the police."
ICE, an arm of the federal Department of Homeland Security, has tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in custody at any given time. Some are waiting to have their status determined; others are waiting to be deported.
The agency doesn't have enough space to hold them all, so it seeks arrangements with local governments.
Officials in Arundel — home of BWI-Marshall Airport, near Baltimore and Washington, and linked by Interstate 95 to the rest of the East Coast — say ICE has been approaching them for years.
In Schuh, the agency finally has a negotiating partner. Officials now are discussing holding ICE detainees at the Ordnance Road Correctional Center in Glen Burnie.
Counties in Maryland that have held detainees for ICE say the deal is good. The agency has paid local governments here around $90 per detainee per day (the number varies according to terms negotiated in each jurisdiction).
Worcester County might be ICE's most enthusiastic partner in Maryland. At the Snow Hill jail, undocumented immigrants typically make up 45 percent of the inmate population. That has meant nearly $5 million in payments to the county annually — enough to cover two-thirds of the cost of running the facility.
Howard, Carroll and Frederick counties have also participated.
"There was a need. We had a resource to meet the need" said Jack Kavanagh, director of corrections for Howard County. "It benefits the agencies involved, and the county benefits because we were able to generate revenue from it."
But some Arundel officials are urging caution. Democrats on the County Council have introduced a resolution expressing opposition to a deal; a vote is expected next month.
"I just wanted to put the brakes on and have a public discussion about it," said Councilman Chris Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat. "I'm really concerned about housing human beings essentially as a commodity."
Sending detainees to local jails is one of several ways ICE prevails upon state, county and municipal governments to help it enforce federal immigration law.
Under a program called Secure Communities, the federal government identified immigrants who were in the country illegally when local departments picked them up for other, criminal violations. Maryland and many of its counties agreed to hold those immigrants for up to 48 hours so an ICE agent could come and take them away.
The program was intended to focus enforcement on immigrants who broke laws after they had entered the United States, or who were repeat border crossers. But The Baltimore Sun reported in 2014 that more than 40 percent of the foreigners who were deported from Maryland had no prior criminal record.
Then-Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler advised counties that holding detainees beyond when they ordinarily would have been released for the charges for which they were arrested probably violated the Fourth Amendment. Then-Gov. Martin O'Malley directed the state-run jail in Baltimore to stop holding immigrants identified through the program, and several counties followed.
The Obama administration has since scrapped Secure Communities and replaced it with what ICE calls the Priority Enforcement Program. Immigrant groups have raised questions about whether that new effort is substantially different.
The Frederick County sheriff's office participates in an ICE program known as 287(g). Sheriff's deputies take suspects into custody for alleged immigration violations and notify ICE.
Officials in Harford County signed an agreement this week to join that program.
The Intergovernmental Service Agreement — the jail deal Arundel is negotiating — is different. Local police aren't involved in arresting or releasing detainees. They simply operate as contractors to house people already in ICE custody.
Arundel would make some empty beds at Ordnance Road available to hold low-risk immigration detainees, according to Terry Kokolis, the county's superintendent of detention facilities. The county uses the 540-bed facility to hold local offenders who have been sentenced to 18 months or less.
"As stewards of the county budget, we should listen to these types of things," Kokolis said. "Evaluating all of the positives and negatives of such a contract, the positives far exceed any negatives."
Neither Kokolis nor ICE would say how many detainees the county would hold or how much the federal government would pay.
ICE has an average of 34,000 people in custody at any given time. They are housed in ICE facilities, in state and local jails under contract, and in privately run prisons. A spokeswoman said the agency strives for "safe and humane" conditions for all detainees in its custody.
"ICE uses these various models to meet the agency's detention needs while achieving the highest possible cost savings for the taxpayer," spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said.
President Barack Obama directed the federal Bureau of Prisons in August to begin scaling back the use of private, for-profit prisons. But the directive did not apply to the Department of Homeland Security or ICE.
Schuh said all levels of government should "share in the responsibility of border defense, of providing for the security of our borders."
And if the county can negotiate a contract that brings in extra money, all the better.
"We have an opportunity to earn a good return on investment in the physical infrastructure of our jail," he said. He said any "surplus" could be put toward increasing salaries of county correctional officers. He said he "hasn't done the math" on how much might be available.
"The negotiations are still very fluid," Schuh said.
County spokesman Owen McEvoy likened the program to accepting federal grants or assisting in federal criminal investigations.
Carroll County took ICE detainees for more than a decade, until it ran out of space.
"If I had the opportunity to do it again, I would," said George Hardinger, warden of the Carroll County Detention Center.
"It was a win-win for the county," he said. "We had beds at times and we could fill them, and it would produce revenue for the county. When we didn't have the beds, we could taper it down."
Garry Mumford, warden of the Worcester County jail, said he's had inmates awaiting deportation to Mexico, South America, Russia, Liberia, Nigeria and even China.
He said holding immigration detainees is similar to jailing local inmates — but the staff more frequently needs to use translation services.
Without the immigrants, Mumford said, he might have to shut down parts of the facility or lay off employees. Even with the ICE detainees, his facility is well below its capacity of 507.
Mumford talks about the program when speaking to community groups. He said he's never encountered opposition.
"It's not a secret," he said. "The public is clearly aware that we house immigration detainees here."
Howard has held immigration detainees at its Jessup detention center since the mid-1990s. The county also holds detainees for the U.S. Marshals Service.
When Kavanagh started as correctional administrator eight years ago, Howard had 36 beds for immigration detainees. After requests from ICE, it increased that number to 100.
Last week, the county held 65 ICE detainees in a total population of about 300. The detainees stay, on average, for about three months. A few have stayed as long as 18 months.
Most are from Mexico or Central America. The county assigns a Spanish-speaking correctional officer as a liaison with the detainees.
Howard will receive about $1.2 million in ICE payments this year. The money goes into the county's general fund.
Arundel County Council members who oppose housing ICE detainees acknowledge there's little the council can do to stop a deal — Schuh has the authority to make the deal himself. The resolution to be considered Nov. 7 is essentially symbolic — and it's not clear if there are four votes on the seven-member council to pass it.
"I'm very cautious involving our facilities and our personnel with anything that involves immigration," said Councilman Peter Smith, a Severn Democrat whose district includes the Ordnance Road jail. "That's a federal issue."
Councilman Jerry Walker, a Gambrills Republican, agrees with Schuh that it's important to crack down on illegal immigration. But he's frustrated that the county executive kept the council in the dark about a possible deal.
Council Chairman Derek Fink, a Pasadena Republican, thinks the contract is a good idea if the numbers work out.
"I don't support illegal immigration," he said, "and I'm fine supporting the federal government."
Schuh said he won't be deterred by objections from council members. He said they have no business interfering in contracts, which are the purview of the executive branch.
And the county executive doesn't buy the council members' concerns.
"I think those are generally cover stories for their real opposition, which is they don't believe in enforcing America's immigration laws," Schuh said. "They believe that there should be no penalties and no action taken against people who come into our country illegally."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Amanda Yeager contributed to this article.